Resisting the Talisman View of Salvation

If our faith does not find expression in a just, generous, and loving life, we should wonder if our claims of deliverance are founded on false confidence and false faith

“To hold up the glory of the temple while ignoring the commands of the God who dwells there, is akin to pagan idolatry (see the discussion of 1 Sam 15:23 here). It is to turn a blessing of the Lord into a talisman, to turn a sacrament into empty ritualism.”


The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a piece last Saturday entitled, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?” which was really a review of Brian McLaren’s new book The Great Spiritual Migration. In the past, I have appreciated some of Kristof’s forays into religious commentary, and I believe he is sincere when he tries to untangle the reality of the Christian movement from the caricature that is so common in popular media (here is an old example, and this one more recent). In this review, however, he uncritically adopts McLaren’s false dichotomy between a care for theological doctrine and the love of neighbor, a decision that ultimately undermines his  larger critique of religious hypocrisy.

In reality, the Christian choice is not between doctrine and love, but between true belief (which is both doctrinally robust and personally generous) and hypocrisy. This is an important distinction because it recognizes that both right doctrine and apparently generous living can be used as a cover for hypocrisy.

In the Scriptures, hypocrisy is most commonly described in terms of true and false worship, and these categories help us understand many of the conflicts in church history. For instance, ever since the Reformation, the church has been repeatedly warned of the ecclesial ditch of empty ritualism, and the temptation to find hope in ritual apart from belief continues in just about every worshiping community today (whether in the form of faking charismatic gifts, mindlessly participating in the sacraments, or caring more about what Study Bible is in your hand than the proper delight in the word of God).

We have not been so careful, however, about our tendency to understand the faithful life merely as a matter of affirming the right propositions about God.

To be sure, the faithful life involves the right understanding of God, but it is also much more than that. Faith’s fruit includes the whole range of produce described the Scriptures.

“The Temple of the Lord!”

When the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah saw this sort of disconnect between faith and the faithful life, he called it for what it is: hypocrisy. He watched as the king of Babylon marched toward Jerusalem, and the people of the city faced the prospect of a terrible siege and captivity reminiscent of the exile of the Northern Kingdom a century before. To bolster their courage, the people repeated the slogan “The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!”

Though we have to speculate somewhat here, we can assume that many believed that the city of Jerusalem could not fall to a foreign power while the temple of the Lord was still in it. The theology of the temple was robust. It remembered that the temple was the dwelling place of the Lord, where he had placed his “name,” and it was the representation of the heavenly throne here on earth. The Jerusalemites might have even remembered the fate of the last foreign king who attempted to take the city back in 701 B.C., and how he had been miraculously turned away by the hand of the Lord (Isaiah 37).

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